All eyes have been on a desert in Kazakhstan this week. Baikonur Cosmodrome has seen the launch of the first human spaceflight, Sputnik and the first orbiting satellite. This week saw another first for this historic site, and a great leap forward for the UK space industry.
Tim Peake has made his ascent to the International Space Station becoming the first British astronaut ever to visit the station, and the first to be entirely funded by the European Space Agency.
Peake’s voyage coincides with another landmark moment, as the government publishes its first ever UK National Space Policy, asserting a new commitment to positioning the UK on the global stage for its prowess in this sector. This week is a turning point for the UK’s space sector.
The image of Peake’s rocket launch was a vivid symbol to the world of the UK’s strength and potential in this exciting sector, and the government’s resounding display of long-term support proves it has the backing to succeed.
Behind the excitement, however, is a blossoming space sector, with a record of innovation extending far beyond rocket launches.
In recent years, the government, universities and business have been investing billions in space research. The UK now has a critical mass of research facilities, world-class scientific talent and entrepreneurial interest to start creating products and breakthroughs that are putting Britain at the heart of space innovation.
One especially strong UK specialism is in satellite applications and communications, which is why this summer the European Space Agency opened its Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications inside the UK Space Gateway at Harwell Campus.
Satellite technology has migrated imperceptibly from the apparently far removed realm of astrophysics to playing a crucial role in our everyday lives. This technology has become central to allowing us everyday conveniences, such as reading the weather forecast or hailing an Uber.
Current research being conducted in the UK around satellites ranges from security to travel. Take the hi-tech heat map cameras originally designed to map the Ozone layer from space by Harwell Campus’ Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which are now also being used to create the most reliable security scanners in the world.
Reaction Engines is developing space launch technology that can be applied to hypersonic air travel, which could allow people to journey to the farthest corner of the globe in just four hours. As for Tim Peake, he will be conducting research essential to advancing our understanding of asthma and the immune system.
Designed and tested in space, these innovations are making an impact closer to home.
As it stands today, Britain’s space industry contributes more than £11bn to the economy, it’s growing by around nine per cent per year and it employs over 130,000 people. Recent projections indicate that this sector could be worth £40bn by 2030 and employ a further 100,000. Accelerating the growth of the space industry is an opportunity to redefine our economic growth and put science back at the centre of British industry.
Much like the UK’s tech cluster before it, our emerging space and satellite specialism has enjoyed success thanks to cross sector partnerships between private companies like Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology and Thales; academics from University College London and the Science and Technology Facilities Council; and government organisations such as the UK Space Agency.
The British sector already stands tall amidst competition from the traditional space giants of the USA and Russia. If the emerging space and satellite cluster could benefit from the same levels of funding and support already afforded to the tech sector, the potential is enormous.
The challenge now is for the UK to create an environment capable of producing and sustaining space research and innovation for years to come. This must be built on collaboration between universities and entrepreneurs, open access to research facilities and the wider business community and government showcasing the impact of space entrepreneurs on the economy.
Tim Peake’s launch this week should rekindle this country’s excitement and interest in the space sector. It may also prompt an understanding of the benefits of the industry for all of us. No longer an unsung component of the British economy, it’s time for the UK space industry to step out of the shadows, flourish as part of a larger cluster and become a part of the national imagination that is so much more than moon landings and comet tracking.